Monday, March 27, 2006

Ten "Epiphanous" Photographs: #8

The eighth of ten "epiphanous photographs" - a hand-picked series of photographs as defined in an earlier Blog entry - is...

Epiphanous Photograph #8: Galen Rowell's Rainbow over the Potala Palace, Lhasa (Tibet, 1981)


Galen Rowell (1940-2002) pioneered "participatory (wilderness) photography," in which the photographer becomes an active creative participant in fine-art image making. An accomplished outdoorsman and adventurer, his deep emotional connection to nature pervades virtually all of his photographs. Another signature characteristic is his vivid use of color during the "magic hour" (at sunrise and sunset); indeed, it is arguably true that Rowell was as much a "master of color" as Ansel Adams was a master of black & white. (It is fitting that he received the Ansel Adams Award for his contributions to the art of wilderness photography in 1984.) The life of this extraordinary artist was cut tragically short in 2002 when the plane carrying Rowell and his wife (Barbara Rowell, herself an accomplished photographer) crashed as they were both returning home from a Workshop in the Sierra Mountains.

Rainbow over the Potala Palace is, according to Rowell himself, one the great photos of his life. I have selected it as one of my own epiphanous photos for two reasons: (1) it is a magnificent Wagnerian-like "epic" photograph, that is jaw-droppingly beautiful as a print and even more so as a symbolic synergy of aesthetics and spiritual meaning, and (2) it is a quintessential example of Rowell's lifelong practice of participatory creation.

According to Rowell (see The Power of Participatory Photography in Inner Game of Outdoor Photography, pages 41-43), this image was captured not long after a trekking group (consisting of about 15 people) that Rowell was a part of in Tibet was called to dinner. A rainbow suddenly appeared in a field below them, though not (from the point of view of the trekkers at that particular moment, as they were all settling down to dinner) in the spot that it appears in Rowell's subsequent photograph.

Rowell, relying on his years of experience with optical phenomena in diverse environments, imagined in his mind's eye the precise spot he must get to from which the rainbow would appear to emanate from the roofs of the Dalai Lama's Potala Palace. Dropping his dinner, and running into the fields as fast as he could to get to where he knew he had to position himself, he managed to capture this incredible photograph.

None of the other trekker/photographers budged an inch; although many later "claimed" to have captured the same image. In fact, none of the other images even came close to having the same drama, with the rainbows in other "versions" (having been captured from obviously wrong angles) either badly missing the Palace or invisible altogether. Only in Rowell's photograph does the rainbow rise majestically out from the Palace. Only Rowell had the forethought, intuition and strength of will to get himself, his camera and his "eye" into the right place at the right time.

Rowell, in his essay (see above), quotes Jacob Bronowski, who finds a similar pattern in the history of scientific creativity: "The mind is roving in a highly charged active way and is looking for connections, for unseen likenesses...It is the highly inquiring mind which at that moment seizes the chance...The world is full of people who are always claiming that they really made the discovery, only they missed it."

Rowell's Rainbow over the Potala Palace taught me that a great natural scene is not always (perhaps even rarely!) enough, by itself, for a fine art photograph. It is not enough to be properly attentive, but then sit patiently, passively, awaiting the right confluence of light, tone, texture and form to present itself; one must imagine the exact space-time-soul point where that magical confluence will arise, and then act swiftly, and decisively, to grab it!

1 comment:

David S. Mazel said...

Now here is a picture that's worth it! Kudos on this selection. It's a beautiful picture and the mix of rainbow with palace is simply gorgeous.

Note how the colors of the rainbow contrast markedly with the drab colors of the palace.

Also, your lesson of being proactive in getting just the right picture at the right time is on the mark as well.

This is one selection that is worthy of your theme. Keep up the good work!